15 January 2012
Bishop Malcolm has asked all parishes and communities within the diocese to consider the future given that in the years to come we will probably have significantly fewer priests available to work than we have had in the past 30 years. At present we have 94 priests of the diocese who are active in ministry, and there are around 20 priests who are members of religious orders who are also working in the diocese. 20 years ago there were 130 diocesan priests on active service, and about another 60 members of religious orders. In 20 years time, there may well be many fewer even than there are today.
We immediately think that there is a shortage of priests. But if we look at the Catholic Church in other countries, we discover that in England we are in comparison still very well off for priests. So it is really that we will have to get used to life as Catholics elsewhere already experience it, rather than that we will be particularly badly off for priests.
But it is difficult to adjust to change, and there will almost inevitably be many changes to come. However, in facing up to these changes it is comforting to remember that Bishop Malcolm does not intend to close down any place of worship. We may have to get used to fewer Masses during the week, and perhaps fewer at the weekend, but there will still be celebrations of Mass at weekends, on Holydays, and on at least some weekdays each week. Secondly, the extra work I expect to begin doing in the summer – and therefore being away from the parish more than at present – will not mean that there will be no Mass at weekends, or that the parish will just be left to fend for itself. So far as I am aware Bishop Malcolm intends me to remain as parish priest; and whether I do remain or not, he will certainly make provision to ensure that this community still hears the Word of God, that the Sacraments are celebrated here, and the community is cared for.
Although the fact that there will be fewer priests is an important consideration, the focus in the consultation which Bishop Malcolm wishes us to participate in should not be on the declining numbers of priests, but rather on the mission of the Church and how we will carry it out, with our hearts and minds open to possibilities for future development. As a Christian communion, we must always look forward in hope; and we look back to the death and resurrection of Our Lord as our inspiration.
I would like the whole of the parish community to have the opportunity to be involved in this process. This means that I will try to involve everyone at the Sunday Masses, and the opportunity will be there (via the website and by means of hard copies of the material) to be involved in the process even when parishioners are unable to attend Mass for a particular weekend. In particular, those who are housebound will be able to contribute. This is the way that I introduced the explanations of the Mass last year, to prepare for the introduction of the new English translation of the Roman Missal. That seemed to go well; so I will try the same idea for the very different purpose of consulting you all in response to the Bishop’s wishes.
I don’t know how long the consultation process will last – to some extent, that depends on the way that you contribute. But it will take at least three months, and probably longer. Bishop Malcolm would like us all to have reported back to the Deanery by the summer, and for proposals to be reported to Bishop’s House in the autumn. So it could take six months! The series on the Mass lasted in fact for 20 sessions. This could take a similar length of time.
I ask for your co-operation in this consultation. This is important for the parish and for the diocese; but this way of consulting in a sustained manner is something which I have not done before. So I would ask for your forbearance if something does not work very well; and for your assistance and your full co-operation in making it work as a whole, so that this parish can reach ALL parishioners and respond to the consultation in good time.
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